Small and Village School Funding Westminster Hall debate

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) on securing this important debate. Access to a high-quality, fulfilling education should not be based on geography. Children do not choose where they live and grow up, so it should never be a barrier to their fulfilling all their ambitions.

The Government have taken important steps to level the playing field through the national funding formula. I recognise that. It moves us towards rebalancing some of the disparities in the old system. We are moving away from more than 100 different funding models across the country, which meant that there was little fairness and no transparency whatsoever. The national funding formula allocates an increase in funding for every pupil in 2018-19; and for the historically underfunded schools, such as those in West Sussex, increases could not have come sooner.

The changes to the funding model will ensure that funding is provided in a more balanced way across the country, not least because for the first time the money that schools receive is comparable across counties and local authorities. However, a key challenge for rural schools, both in West Sussex and across the country, is pupil numbers. This is a more precarious funding model for rural small schools, as there can be significant annual variation in the number of children coming into each year. Some schools have become very worried when just one family are moving out of the area, as they rely on every single child for income.

 

Intervention: Sarah Newton: In areas where there are armed forces personnel, such as my constituency, it can be a real problem if, when they are deployed overseas or sent to different parts of the country, the family moves from a small school. It seems very unfair, when people are serving their country and doing the right thing, that the primary schools are adversely affected in that way.

 

Gillian Keegan: That is a very good point. I had not thought of it, but of course in that kind of area there will be a massive impact as children move from place to place.

I am aware that, for the most isolated schools, the new funding formula has a sparsity factor that aims to provide some funding certainty for rural schools, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough said, very few schools actually qualify for that. It does not cover the financial needs of these schools.

The fixed sum for primary schools in West Sussex has dropped from £150,000 to £110,000, so each rural primary school needs to find more than 12 new pupils to keep the same level of funding as they had. That is incredibly difficult, because it is not possible to get 12 new pupils from these areas. The challenge is on top of the fact that the Chichester district is the fifth lowest funded local authority for primary and the sixth lowest funded for secondary. In the Chichester district, many of our schools fall within the South Downs national park, where new homes are not being built; they are few and far between. That only exacerbates the pressures on our precious rural schools. At Harting Church of England Primary School, the headteacher now predicts the future intake based on families living in the village and surrounding areas, and it will continue to decrease. That is a problem.​

I understand that many rural small schools are now taking on a greater quantity of children with special educational needs and complex behavioural issues who have often been excluded from other schools. They do that to bolster numbers, because each child brings with them a pocket of funding. Although that funding allows schools to keep their doors open, it does not cover the subsequent additional support that these schools need from teaching assistants.

I recognise that funding for special educational needs has risen from £5 billion in 2013 to £6.3 billion this year. However, schools still face challenges in addressing the rising levels of special educational need, not least in West Sussex, where 13.5% of all pupils require SEN support, which is well above the national average of 11.6%.

Having looked at the school budgets, to me the challenge is clear. Most schools spend more than 80% of their budget on teachers and staff. That is a real challenge, because little is left for essentials, pencils, books and digital equipment. My local schools are using other funding streams to survive. Loxwood Primary School has a weekly cake raffle to raise money for iPads and a wish-list website where local businesses, friends of the school and parents donate items. I checked that website the other day and I saw everything from a paper guillotine to paint brushes and books. The school has just crowdfunded 15 laptops thanks to the generosity of a local charity, the parent teacher association and the parish council. That work is inspiring, but it should not be necessary. Schools such as Loxwood are the beating heart of their communities. The teachers should spend their time educating the next generation, not fundraising.

My constituency is packed with fantastic schools and dedicated teachers and parents who go above and beyond for their schools and students. They maintain exceptional standards despite facing pressure. In advance of the upcoming spending review, I encourage the Department for Education to continue to engage closely with the schools and local authorities, to develop a deeper understanding of the pressure these schools face, and to consider the level of income required to maintain such excellent standards.

These schools are the beating heart of communities up and down the country. They offer the best education to young children and they are the centre of all kinds of community activities. They ensure that our precious village life is maintained.